The Xbox Series S is one of the two new consoles released by computing giant Microsoft in 2020. It is the successor to the all-digital Xbox One S.
In this Xbox Series S review, we’ll be covering all you need to know. We’ll also be comparing the Series S to its predecessor to find out if it’s worth upgrading. If you’re looking for more on the flagship console, check out our Xbox Series X review too.
As of September 2020, Microsoft had sold 48 million Xbox One game consoles according to Statista. The previous generation Xbox was a great success despite its rocky launch. Seven years later, it’s time for a new generation of game consoles. With less power than the new Xbox flagship — the Xbox Series X — and its big rival the Sony PS5, is the digital-only Xbox Series S worth purchasing? Find out in Android Authority’s Microsoft Xbox Series S review.
Update, July 2021: Added details about upcoming games, availability, and performance comparisons.
Design: Brilliantly minimal
The Xbox Series S is a small white and black cuboid that comes in at 275 x 151 x 65mm. For context, it’s a little bit taller than the Xbox One when sat horizontally but far thinner in every other regard. The next-gen console hardly takes up any space with an overall volume of just ~2.7 liters.
The Xbox Series S is seriously compact.
It can be placed upright or laying on its side thanks to the pre-installed feet on both sides. However, it’s a little taller than its predecessor. Because of this, you’ll need more space in your entertainment center for adequate airflow to the top fan. Nevertheless, its smaller size means you won’t need as much space behind it for cables and rear airflow. Since the design is minimal, it doesn’t stick out next to a DVR, Blu-Ray player, or other consoles either.
The small size is partly thanks to its omission of an optical disc drive. This does mean, however, that the Xbox Series S only supports digital games and other media.
Before you can get to that, though, you need to set up the console. The Series S only requires two cables: the power cable and the HDMI cable — both of which come in the box.
See also: Best Xbox deals
While we’re here we should look at the other ports too. Upfront is a single USB Type-A port. On the rear, there are the aforementioned power and HDMI 2.1 out ports. Along with these, you’ll find a gigabit ethernet, two USB Type-A ports, and a proprietary storage expansion slot. The SPDIF optical audio, IR out, and HDMI in ports — which were all found on the Xbox One S — are all missing. There are also tactile markers on the back of the Series S underneath the ports. These are great for accessibility as they make it possible to find the right ports even if you can’t see them.
You’re required to login in or sign up for an Xbox account at the setup stage. Like any modern gaming machine, this can be a little tedious if you just want to get to the action. Nevertheless, given the digital-only nature of the console you’ll need the account to actually download games and other media. You can set up the console with the Xbox mobile app. I had a little trouble with this, but my colleague Oliver who tested the Series X had no problems at all. When it works, it’s a much faster way of getting through the setup process.
There are a lot of updates required when you boot up the Xbox Series S for the first time. Even with an average download speed of 750mbps, the setup took me almost 40 minutes to complete. You need to update the system and the controller, as well as connect your accounts. It’s a fairly intuitive process. Your hand is held the whole way, but be sure to set some time aside for setup.
Even under heavy load, the console is whisper quiet.
The Xbox Series S is whisper quiet under low load such as when watching Netflix or when scrolling through the Xbox Store. When playing a triple-A game like Watch Dogs Legion, the fan spins up a little bit but is still barely audible. It’s worth noting that the fan grill is directly on top which is where dust can settle quite easily. The noise could increase and be a problem a few months or years down the line when the fan inevitably collects dust. However, we won’t know for sure until much later in the console’s lifecycle.
On the whole, the Xbox Series S looks inoffensive. It’s plain and simple which, if anything, helps it fit into many gamers’ living rooms.
Controller: Subtle improvements
The Xbox One controller had a great design with a staggered thumbstick setup and rumble triggers. Microsoft decided to make some small changes for the new Xbox Wireless Controller — the same gamepad bundled with both the Series S and Series X. However, it kept the basic layout and design from the previous generation. There are two thumbsticks, a directional pad, ABXY buttons, two triggers, two shoulder buttons, and four center buttons. On the bottom are a couple of ports: one for accessories plus a 3.5mm headphone jack for wired headsets.
The main changes are ergonomic. The back panels are now textured for extra grip, as are the triggers. The top part of the controller where the Xbox button resides is now flush instead of indented. There’s also a new share button in the middle. The directional pad has been rounded off and made more clicky and tactile. On the top, a USB-C port is in place of the old micro-USB port.
In the hand, the controller feels weighty and easy to grip thanks to the textured back. I have medium-sized hands and can comfortably reach all the buttons. The directional pad is a little loose but clicks nicely. The ABXY buttons haven’t changed since the last gamepad, while the shoulder buttons and triggers are firm and satisfying.
The controller hasn't changed much. That's a good thing.
Just like previous Xbox controllers, this one doesn’t have an included rechargeable battery. There are two included AA batteries, but after that, you are required to provide your own. You can use the controller in wired mode via the USB-C port up top on both an Xbox Series S and a Windows PC. I personally don’t like the use of disposable AA batteries, but Microsoft does offer a rechargeable battery pack (sold separately) so it’s not the end of the world. You can also use rechargeable AAs if you wish.
I played for a solid 10 hours with the controller and I didn’t see the battery life icon move. Microsoft says that the Xbox One controller should last up to 30 hours. I’m inclined to believe that based on my personal experience thus far. As with the Xbox One controller, first and third-party rechargeable battery backs are readily available. This sweetens the deal when it comes to battery life and charging convenience.
The rumble in both the main chassis and the triggers feels strong, albeit a little loose like the previous generation. There isn’t any special haptic tech in this controller like there is inside the PlayStation 5’s DualSense gamepad. That said, I was perfectly happy with the Xbox Series S controller playing any kind of game.
Performance: Super speed
The Xbox Series S is not a performance-oriented console. Instead, Microsoft is looking to strike a balance between next-gen power and value for money. It’s a big leap up from the Xbox One and Xbox One S, but it isn’t as powerful as the Xbox One X (at least in terms of GPU) nor the Xbox Series X.
The Xbox Series S and Series X’s CPUs share the same custom AMD Zen 2 architecture. However, Microsoft cut down the components for the Series S. It has a 3.6GHz eight-core CPU, 10GB GDDR6 RAM, and a GPU with 20 Compute Units at 1.2565GHz. By comparison, the more powerful Series X has a 3.8GHz eight-core CPU, 16GB GDDR6, RAM, and a GPU with 52 Compute Units at 1.825GHz.
In return for this drop in performance, you get a much smaller and more affordable console. The less power-hungry components don’t require as much cooling capacity either, which significantly cuts down on the overall space needed.
That said, I didn’t feel all that much of a performance improvement over the Xbox One S at 1080p. Triple-A games often still ran at sub-60fps, while some backward compatible games remained locked to 30fps. Nevertheless, others fared much better. Some games like Forza Horizon 4 managed to hit 60fps with very few hiccups.
Some of this has to do with optimization. Games that are specifically optimized for the Xbox Series X/S will run at higher frame rates. As more games achieve this, we should see the Series S outperform the Xbox One X — except when it comes to native 4K output. More on this in a minute.
Playing action games at 120Hz is great, though isn't always possible.
The Series S is technically capable of 1440p 60fps, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a single TV that has a native resolution of 1440p. Your TV is likely either 1080p or 2160p. This is far more common for PC monitors, and the Xbox Series S will run at 1440p on those. If you have a UHD TV, the console will upscale some games to display them at UHD 60fps.
Even if you do have a 1440p monitor, however, power-intensive games like Forza Horizon 4 and Watch Dogs: Legion still run at 1080p or dynamic resolutions instead of 1440p. It doesn’t look like many games actually play at 1440p a lot of the time. The console therefore isn’t being pushed to its limits. Hopefully, we’ll see Microsoft launch a game that showcases the Xbox Series S’ ability to render at 1440p with higher refresh rates.
While this is a little disappointing, it’s a fair trade-off given that users of a more affordable console are less likely to care about QHD and UHD gaming. Additionally, resolution is only part of the puzzle for graphical enhancements over the previous generation. When running around London in Watch Dogs Legion, the graphics quality seemed to have enjoyed a bump from the Xbox One S thanks to ray tracing, which enables advanced reflections and lighting. You’ll also notice upgraded effects in games such as Forza Horizon 4. It shows off beautiful reflections and lighting despite not officially supporting ray tracing.
Related: The best 4K TV deals
Another benefit of playing at lower, dynamic resolutions is that you can unlock the Xbox Series S’ 120Hz mode. This allows the system to output up to 120Hz from certain titles. I played Call of Duty: Warzone at 120fps in online matchmaking and it ran rather well, maintaining a fluid gaming experience. When the game was running at 120fps, it felt fast, fluid, and responsive. However, this wasn’t always the case. The lower-spec console often struggled to hit 120fps in environments with lots of explosives and gunfire.
To make use of the 120Hz mode, you’ll also need a 120Hz-capable display. Some newer high-end televisions with HDMI 2.1 support can run the Xbox Series S in 120Hz mode. Otherwise, you could use a compatible PC monitor.
As for game loading times, this is where the Series S excels. Compared to the Xbox One S’ slow mechanical storage, this thing flies. Whether you’re starting it up from cold or jumping back into Forza after a Call of Duty session, the Xbox Series S is incredibly responsive. This is thanks to the 512GB of onboard NVMe SSD custom storage. It’s an order of magnitude faster than the previous generation’s mechanical spinning storage. The rear expansion slot allows users to purchase and add on super-fast NVMe external storage too. Microsoft has partnered with Seagate on the first batch of 1TB £220 modules that can be interchanged between the Series S and Series X.
Unfortunately, out of the box, the Xbox Series S only has 364GB of usable NVMe storage. This isn’t a lot when you consider that some triple-A titles can touch 100GB. Thankfully, Microsoft told IGN that games for the Series S are smaller than those for the Series X due to lower-resolution textures and files. This appears to be the case at least for Forza Horizon 4 which weighs in at 71.4GB on the Series S and 81.9GB on the Series X. This helps sweeten the deal but still isn’t ideal when games are getting bigger and bigger.
Microsoft has explicitly said that the Series S is backward compatible with “thousands” of Xbox One, Xbox 360, and original Xbox titles. However, due to the lack of optical drive, your media is going to have to be linked to your account. You can purchase said media through the Microsoft Store. Alternatively, you can buy and redeem gift codes which is a painless process. I played Skate 3 — an Xbox 360 title — on the Series S and it ran buttery smooth with no hiccups.
As mentioned above, Microsoft has actually optimized backward compatible games for the Xbox Series S. It’s allowed the Series S to run these games utilizing the full power of the Xbox’s new hardware. One example is Auto HDR. Microsoft developed it to add HDR enhancements to games that released in SDR. On the Series S, Microsoft has enabled 16x anisotropic filtering for “nearly all” backward compatible games to improve texture fidelity. Since the Xbox Series S has more powerful hardware than the last-gen, many Xbox One games are able to run at higher and steadier framerates. Some older titles are also able to be played at higher resolutions, too.
The Xbox Series S doesn’t support an 8K output. This makes sense since it doesn’t have the performance chops to play at such resolutions. The kind of buyers looking for that feature will likely have the budget to buy the more powerful Xbox Series X.
Features and software: Responsive, but unintuitive
The software and features are very similar to the previous generation. In fact, they are nearly identical across consoles. This makes it easy to migrate if you’re coming from an older Microsoft console. However, the layout is very different from the PS4’s UI, so it will take some getting used to if you’re coming over from team blue.
The software is not terribly intuitive which can make picking up the menus a bit tricky. For example, unless I knew that it was buried within the Xbox quick menu, I would not be able to find the Settings button since the main home tiles change as you use the console. That said, once you do some exploring and know where to look navigation is very responsive.
The Xbox Series S' interface isn't intuitive, but it is fast and responsive.
The UI constantly nudges you towards Xbox Game Pass Ultimate. This is Microsoft’s “ultimate” game subscription service for both Xbox, Windows 10, and Android devices. For $14.99 (or £10.99 per month here in the UK), you get access to hundreds of games from both current and previous generations via the Game Pass library. Also included is EA Play. It expands this collection with titles from publisher EA, including Battlefield V, The Sims 4, FIFA 20, and NFS Heat. There’s also a separate library for PC which has a mix of Xbox titles and PC-exclusive games.
Part of the Game Pass Ultimate service is Xbox Live Gold, which you need if you want to connect and play online multiplayer games. Also included is a beta feature that allows you to play Xbox games via the cloud on your Android smartphone or tablet called Xbox Cloud Gaming. There are even some games you can play on your phone’s touchscreen without connecting a controller.
Microsoft offers two step-down tiers called Game Pass and Game Pass for PC. These are tied to their respective ecosystems and each costs $9.99 per month. Neither includes Xbox Live Gold nor the ability to play games on your Android smartphone or tablet. Given that Xbox Live Gold is $9.99 per month on its own, this step-down tier isn’t that great of a deal compared to Game Pass Ultimate. I would therefore recommend going with the higher tier service. Check out our full comparison of both services here.
The Xbox companion app is available on iOS and Android. It allows you to see what your Xbox Live friends are doing, browse the Xbox store, check your media highlights, and control the console with the remote feature. It’s a handy app to generally manage the console without having to use the controller.
A cool new feature is Xbox Remote Play. As you may have guessed from its name, it allows you to remotely play Xbox Series games on your phone with a controller. At the moment, it feels a little gimmicky, however. Getting a controller hooked up and mounted is a hassle unless you have specific hardware. However, it’s a quick fix for those with kids who want to play when the parents want to watch a film. It’s totally doable thanks to the Xbox app which is free to install and use.
The controller’s new share button, on the other hand, allows you to take screenshots of the game you’re playing. You can then share them with friends via your Xbox profile. There are also options to share to Twitter or to set as your Xbox background. You can view these on your Xbox, on a web browser, and on your phone with the Xbox app.
The Xbox Store has plenty of free streaming apps too. This includes YouTube, Hulu, Amazon Prime Video, Disney Plus, and Netflix. Microsoft has removed its HDMI-in port so you can no longer use your Xbox as a DVR, though I don’t know any Xbox One players who used this feature.
Games: Samey, for now
At launch, the Xbox Series S didn’t have any major first-party exclusives. Going into 2021 and 2022, new titles Fable, Forza Horizon 5, and Halo Infinite will slowly become available. Halo Infinite was initially pegged as a launch title, but was delayed due to various factors. It’s still slated to be the first major console exclusive. However, it’s not set for release until holiday 2021. For now, game titles don’t seem to be a reason to purchase this console at launch.
Despite the lack of launch exclusives, there's still a huge library of playable titles.
Instead, third-party studios have filled in the gaps. Big hitters like Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla, Dirt 5, Call of Duty: Cold War, and Watch Dogs Legion all arrived in time for Series S’s launch week. I playtested the latter on our Series S console. All of these titles are also available on the Xbox One, PS4, and PS5. Despite being cross-generation, however, these games are optimized for the Xbox Series consoles. You can tell this by the X/S icon in the bottom left of the cover icon in the store.
Continue reading: The best Xbox Series X/S games
Being optimized for Series X/S means taking advantage of the extra power of the new consoles. It’s a mixture of higher resolution textures, 120Hz modes, and higher frame rates for X/S optimized games. Microsoft’s Smart Delivery service also gives you the option to purchase supported games for the Xbox One and have them available for next-generation consoles without any additional fees. It’s down to the developer and publisher to implement the feature, but it seems like a great way to encourage last-gen players to upgrade.
Additionally, Microsoft conveniently sells older titles through its online store. These titles also include Xbox One, Xbox 360, and even original Xbox games. If you already own them digitally, they should be available on your Xbox Series S. I was able to play the Xbox 360 title Skate 3 on the Series S by simply navigating to my owned games and hitting download.
A Game Pass Ultimate subscription allows you to play hundreds of titles without buying them individually. This catalog gets updated every few weeks, so there’s always something new to play. In 2020, Microsoft partnered with EA to bring the latter’s own EA Play subscription to Game Pass Ultimate for no extra charge, which further expands the library with sports games, Star Wars titles, and more. If you’re buying the digital-only Series S, I feel like Game Pass Ultimate is near essential because it’s cheaper than buying games individually through the Microsoft store.
If you’re a PC gamer running Windows 10, you will have access to all Xbox-exclusive titles via the Microsoft store. However, Game Pass Ultimate is easily the best subscription in gaming right now, and the Series S is an affordable entry point to all the console games you’ll find on the service.
Accessories: Pleasantly versatile
The Xbox Series S already has a nice selection of accessories directly from Microsoft. Starting off, the controller situation is incredibly flexible. The Series controllers are incompatible with the Series and One consoles, as well as PC. Xbox One controllers are also compatible with the Series and One consoles as well as PC. This means that you can use your new controllers on your old console and vice versa. The new Xbox Wireless Controllers start at $59.99 which is $10 less than the PS5’s DualSense.
Microsoft is selling $19.99 rechargeable battery packs that can replace your AA batteries too. The Play and Charge Kit comes with a USB-C to USB-A cable which allows you to both charge the controller and use it in wired mode.
I’m also happy to say that Microsoft is allowing nearly all Xbox One accessories to work with the Series S. This means that Xbox One owners won’t have to re-buy their favorite accessories. These include all first-party controllers, the chatpad, the Razer Turret, the Adaptive Controller, and the stereo headset.
As for storage, Microsoft has partnered with Seagate for the first batch of super-fast expansion modules. These are 1TB in volume, taking the entire system storage to 1.5TB. They cost $220 (or £220 in the UK) and can be plugged directly into the rear storage expansion port. Modules in different sizes and from different brands would be handy for those who don’t need another 200% storage or those who don’t want to shell out almost the value of the console for extra space. Hopefully more high-speed options are made available soon.
While you can connect a USB storage device to the Xbox Series S and download games to it, you can’t run Xbox Series X/S games from the drive. However, backward compatible games are able to be run from an external USB drive. If you want to expand your storage for Xbox Series games, you’ll need the aforementioned super-fast storage modules. For those looking to run Xbox One, Xbox 360, and original Xbox titles from a USB drive, you don’t need to worry.
Xbox Series S specs
|Xbox Series S||Xbox One S|
Xbox Series S:AMD APU
Eight cores at 3.6GHz
Xbox One S:AMD APU
Eight cores at 1.75GHz
Xbox Series S:AMD APU
Xbox One S:AMD APU
Xbox Series S:10GB GDDR6
Xbox One S:8GB GDDR3
Xbox Series S:512GB NVMe SSD
Xbox One S:500GB HDD
|Resolution and frame rate|
Xbox Series S:UHD upscaling
Up to 1440p at 120fps
Xbox One S:Up to 1080p 60fps
Xbox Series S:No
Xbox One S:UHD 4K Blu-Ray drive
Xbox Series S:275 x 151 x 65mm
Xbox One S:294.6 x 228.6 x 63.5mm
Value and the competition: Super affordable!
- Microsoft Xbox Series S: 512GB — $299/£249/€299
Editors note: As of June 2021, the Xbox Series S is still extremely limited in stock. This is the current situation across all next-gen consoles.
The Xbox Series S comes in at $299 in the US, £249 in the UK, and €299 in Europe. This is the same pricing scheme as the Xbox One S with the same storage volume. The console has launched in all three regions. Additionally, it is comfortably more affordable than even the cheapest PS5 console which has launched for $399, £349.99, and €399 in the same regions.
Compared to the PS5 Digital Edition, the Series S is more compact with a less garish design. It sports less storage, less power, and less RAM, but it’s also meant for a different audience. The PS5 runs games at up to 8K resolution or UHD 4K at 120fps. It costs more at $399 (£359) and is more of a hardcore gaming console.
The Xbox Series S costs about the same as the Nintendo Switch. Of course, they are completely different beasts. One is a digital-only, ray-tracing-capable desktop system. The other is a handheld with a touch screen and a TV dock. However, it’s great to see a proper desktop console priced the same as Nintendo’s home-handheld system.
The Series S is one of the cheapest next-gen game consoles on the market.
The Xbox Series S experience is, in many ways, the opposite of PC gaming. Instead of tailoring your hardware and software experience, you are given one console and one controller. You’re shown where the game library is and you get specific pricing with no third-party stores. It’s more about pick-up-and-play, and users are less likely to care about frame rates and resolutions.
Microsoft’s Xbox All Access program allows you to purchase the console under finance while having access to Game Pass Ultimate for 24 months. For the Series S, you pay $24.99 per month in the US, £20.99 in the UK, and €24.99 in Europe for the full 24 months. This is handy for those who don’t want to pay a lump sum in one go. It also works out a bit cheaper than paying for the console and 24 months of Game Pass Ultimate upfront.
Xbox Series S: The verdict
If you already own an Xbox One S or Xbox One X and don’t mind the performance and size, you don’t need to upgrade right now. The Series S runs very similar software, very similar games, and has an almost identical controller to those older options. Later in 2021, there will eventually be Xbox series exclusives which will increase its value. For now, though, games aren’t the reason to buy a new Xbox.
This is especially true if you’re coming from the Xbox One X as your graphical user experience will take a hit. The Xbox One X still beats out the Series S when it comes to 4K performance. If you’re looking to upgrade from the One X, the more powerful Xbox Series X is the better choice. However, anyone with the original Xbox One or an Xbox One S will enjoy a graphical boost, albeit a minor one.
The Xbox Series S is an affordable entry point into next-gen gaming and Xbox Game Pass.
The much faster storage and compact size are the main reasons to upgrade to one of these from the Xbox One series. They’re such impactful upgrades that I would personally recommend that any console gamer upgrades to a ninth-gen system, even at this lower entry point. The seamlessness of switching apps and games and the super-fast boot-up times are fantastic. If you’re a minimalist or have limited space, the shrunken design of the Series S is also ideal.
Despite this, the Xbox Series family feels more like a new Xbox One generation than a new console generation altogether. Microsoft seems to be unifying its console division. It’ll be interesting to see how the company continues to modify its console lineup going forward.
Those looking for a compact, minimalistic game console for some 1080p gaming up to 120Hz will find that the Xbox Series S is a fantastic option. For the best value for money combination, I recommend the Series S and a subscription to Game Pass Ultimate. This gives you plenty of games to choose from, online multiplayer connectivity, and is one of the best value gaming experiences from any brand. If you want more power, you’ll have to pony up for its bigger sibling, the Series X, or make the switch to the PS5.
That’s our Xbox Series S review. What do you think of Microsoft’s affordable new Xbox?